Poetry and Conversion in the Viking Age, Part 2: Hallfreðr ‘troublesome poet’ at the court of King Olaf Tryggvason

In the first part of this post I explored Hallfreðr’s Conversion Verses, providing a translation of them as a coherent whole. We don’t, however, have a contemporary tenth- or eleventh-century account of Hallfreðr’s performance of this poetry, and indeed it is only in the later Middle Ages that we have any record of the poet full-stop. So where do the verses come from, and were they definitely composed by a skald in the Viking Age, representing his true feelings about converting to Christianity?

Much of what we know about Hallfreðr comes from the fourteenth-century text Hallfreðr’s Saga, which presents us with a narrative of the eponymous skald’s life, though given that the text was composed a good 200-300 years after he lived, it is inevitably a highly fictionalised account. As with much other saga literature, the author quotes snippets of skaldic verse, giving the story a sense of verisimilitude, and the Conversion Verses themselves are dramatised as part of an exchange between Hallfreðr and his new patron, King Olaf Tryggvason.

The saga author tells us that Hallfreðr had been praising the old pagan gods within the earshot of the members of the king’s court, even reciting some verse (eliptically) mentioning Odin, something that the Christian Olaf does not take kindly to. This verse is the first in the series of Conversion Verses, and prompts King Olaf to call it an ‘evil verse’ (ill vísa) and to improve it, i.e. to make it less impious. The rest of the Conversion Verses are then stitched into a more extended exchange, with Olaf calling for better, more godly poetry, and the saga author presenting each stanza in turn as Hallfreðr’s attempt at an “improvement”; the skald incorporates increasingly more forceful rejections of Odin and the other gods, eventually invoking Christ in the final two stanzas. The episode ends somewhat abruptly after this and we can only assume that the king was finally satisfied.

Erin Goeres has argued that it is unlikely that these verses were actually composed as a coherent whole by Hallfreðr in the tenth century, only being stitched together much later by the saga author. This seems very likely, not least because the individual stanzas fit somewhat awkwardly together in the sort of progression that the saga narrative presents us with. Whether the verses are themselves “genuine” is another question entirely, and not one likely to be answered satisfactorily – unfortunately the formal criteria for dating them is inconclusive. Diana Whaley very much leaves the question open while seeming to lean towards the idea that they might be later compositions, though not necessarily by the saga author themself. The Conversion Verses remain valuable regardless, either as a record of one skald’s tenth-century conversion, or as a later medieval imagining of what it might have been like to change one’s faith in the Viking Age.

Text: Hallfreðr performs before King Olaf Tryggvason

On many occasions, Hallfreðr praised the gods and told people they were ill-treated. At one point, he recited the following:

Once it was I’d offer
up gifts to the sharp-witted
lord of the lofty high seat;*               *Odin
mankind’s luck has splintered.

The king said: ‘This is an evil verse – do better”. So Hallfreðr recited:

I call to mind the wondrous
works of our ancestors—
how folk wrought ringing
verse to win Odin’s favour
—and I hesitate,
for the skald got solace
from Viðrir’s* skill.                              *Odin
Sure, I serve Christ now,
but must Frigg’s first husband          *Odin
be honoured with hatred?

The king spoke again: ‘You give much thought to the gods, don’t you? It reflects poorly on you’. Hallfreðr then composed this verse:

Champion of men*, I reject                 *King Olaf
the chieftain of the raven-feast,*       *Odin
the false one who harboured
flattery in heathen times.

‘This is little better, Hallfreðr, compose another verse to set things right’. Yet again, Hallfreðr recited a new verse:

I let go Njǫrðr’s deceit last year,
now Freyr and Freyja have left me;
fiends take mercy on Grímnir*,                *Odin
oh fierce one*, and the almighty Þórr.    *King Olaf
I’ll wish my grace from God
alone and Christ his son,
he who holds famed power
under the father of earth*;                        *God the father
his anger overwhelms me.

The king spoke: ‘Such verse is well-intended – better than nothing at least – but still, compose me another’. And Hallfreðr spoke:

It’s the way with the foremost
of the Sogn-fjorders* *King Olaf
that all sacrifice is ended;
we must shun many
of the norns’ shapings,
the keep of old customs.
All people fling Odin’s
own family to the winds;
I’m impelled to leave Njǫrðr’s
kindred and invoke Christ instead.

Further reading

Erin Michelle Goeres, ‘The Many Conversions of Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld’, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 7 (2011), 45–62.

Diana Whaley (ed.). Sagas of Warrior Poets. London: Penguin, 2002.

Diana Whaley, ‘The “Conversion Verses” in Hallfreðar saga: Authentic Voice of a   Reluctant Christian?’, in Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society, ed. by Margaret Clunies Ross (Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2003), 234–57.

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